(Canadian OH&S News) — A number of unions in Ontario are protesting a provincial bill that they claim could have a detrimental effect on occupational health and safety if it passes. While the bill proposes to amend many laws, two middle sections have sparked outrage in Ontario’s labour community.
Tabled by Finance Minister Charles Sousa, Bill 70, or the Building Ontario Up for Everyone Act (Budget Measures), 2016, would implement budget measures in many areas. Schedule 16 of the bill would amend the Occupational Health and Safety Act — affecting Ministry of Labour (MOL) inspections of workplaces, in particular — while Schedule 17 would alter the Ontario College of Trades and Apprenticeship Act to give the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB) power to overrule decisions by the Ontario College of Trades.
The latter schedule sparked a public demonstration in front of the Ontario legislature in Toronto on Nov. 30. This was attended by tradespeople and organizations who felt that the section threatened jobs and workplace safety, by potentially allowing the OLRB to give a pass to unqualified workers to do work that requires certified tradespeople.
“We had 4,500 people on the front lawn,” said John Grimshaw, the executive secretary-treasurer of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Construction Council of Ontario. He added that Schedule 17 had “really upset a lot of people.”
Len Elliott, the regional vice president for southwestern Ontario with the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, gave a presentation in the legislature opposing Schedule 16 on Dec. 1. The union has charged that the section will help employers dodge safety inspections; a previous statement from the MOL said that it wanted to “lessen the burden on employers by taking away unnecessary proactive inspections.”
“Unbelievable and unacceptable, in my opinion,” Elliott, an oh&s inspector in London, Ont., said about the MOL’s stance. “I can tell you in the opinion of 400 inspectors, that’s just not acceptable.”
Elliott added that the bill would give Ontario’s Chief Prevention Officer unwarranted power to outsource certification and accreditation standards.
“What we think this is doing is going down the path of privatization of our health and safety inspectors,” he explained. “Our inspectors have written thousands of orders in workplaces proactively, and many of those workplaces wouldn’t qualify for accreditation. Because you need an external auditing body called the Ministry of Labour, and that body needs to be public, not private.
“This will result in more injuries and more deaths in workplaces, if you ban inspectors from going into those workplaces proactively.”
A statement from the office of Labour Minister Kevin Flynn denied that the accreditation standard proposed by Schedule 16 would result in fewer inspections.
“Proactive health and safety inspections have been an important element of the Ministry’s health and safety enforcement and will continue to be,” the statement read. “It is the intent of the Ministry to consult extensively with labour and employer stakeholders on… standards for accreditation, as well as implementation.”
Regarding Schedule 17, Flynn’s office added that the proposed amendments would enhance worker protections that were already in place. “They will also help expand consumer protection by ensuring that all work is done to the highest standards. The jobs that need to be done by trained, skilled workers will still be done by trained, skilled workers,” it said.
Grimshaw charged that Schedule 17 would allow untrained workers to do potentially dangerous work, with uninformed OLRB bureaucrats making appeal decisions when safety incidents arise.
“The bottom line is that any system is only as good as its weakest link,” Grimshaw explained. “The most insurance you’re going to get to make a system safe is to make sure that the people who installed it are properly trained.”
He added that sloppy electrical work that passes muster by OLRB standards could result in a worker’s electrocution years later. “You can have inspectors go around and check it, but inspectors aren’t going to start tearing walls apart looking to see if you did something right or not. It just doesn’t work that way,” he said. “There are all kinds of things that we learn, but the average everyday person wouldn’t.”
Elliott expressed skepticism when asked if the widespread protest against Bill 70 had gotten the message across. “They’re probably not going to change things, because they’re a Liberal majority government that clearly doesn’t understand health and safety in our province,” he said.
Grimshaw was equally skeptical. “This government isn’t really good at listening lately,” he said.
Bill 70 is scheduled for ratification by Dec. 8, when the legislature breaks for the holiday season.